Friday, July 11, 2008

1920-1921 W514 Baseball #5, "Shufflin' Phil" Douglas

Shufflin' Phil Douglas owns a great baseball nickname, right up there with Puddin' Head Jones and Hot Potato Hamlin. Unfortunately, the imaginative title masks a greatly troubled player, as Phil's drinking towered over his prodigious pitching talents. We could remember him as a World Series winner and one of the last legal spit-ballers, but Douglas casts a larger shadow as a recipient of one of baseball commissioner Kennessee Landis' lifetime bans from baseball.

Card front (blank back)

Phil debuted with a cup of White Sox coffee in 1912, just the first stop on a journey that covered five franchises over ten years, as teams progressively passed along his off-the-field issues like a track baton. John McGraw's Giants traded for Douglas in 1919 and Phil stuck around long enough to win two games in the 1921 World Series, but away from the diamond, he clashed with the discipline-minded manager, garnering both team suspensions and a bizarre dry-out kidnapping.

Tempers and drinking being what they are, it wasn't long before Phil's desire to sabotage McGraw shot himself in the foot. Douglas penned a foolish letter to a friend on the second-place St. Louis team, offering to "disappear" for the rest of the season (and thus denying New York their best pitcher), if the Cardinals provided some inducement. Despite a sober retraction, Commissioner Landis granted Phil's wish by banning him for life on August 16, 1922.

I like the downcast, introspective expression on this card. New York's uniform hangs slack and a little empty, long wool sleeves itchy against its humid summer winds. Douglas plays his last and longest stop in the bigs. Victories on the field come often, but the manager is a pain-in-the-ass. Bottles offer both solace and demons. Phil wonders: can't a guy have and eat his cake once in a while?

Most sets from the teens and twenties have an ephemeral feeling, with cheap paper stock and simple drawings like today's W514s. Without company info or statistics, it's hard to narrow a set's print date to one year, so players that change cities frequently help pin down a year by their listed team. Some catalogs date this set as 1919, but Phil didn't join New York until late that year, making it too early unless they rushed out the set for the World Series.

I think this set printer started production in the winter of 1919 and debuted them close to opening day in April 1920, with stock continuing to fill carnival vending machines through 1921. The dotted line on my #5's left edge hints at a neighbor; most came in strips of 5, leaving it to young collectors to hand-cut them down to singles. See Robert Edwards Auction's 2005 lot of several uncut strips for more.

Value: This #5 cost $15, about right for low and mid-grade singles. As with other prewar sets, stars cost a good deal more.

Fakes / reprints: Not sure if anyone reprinted Shufflin' Phil, but they probably exist for HOFers.

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